ESB headquarters a ‘unique’ component of Fitzwilliam Street

Architect Shane O’Toole criticises decision to demolish building at Bord Pleanála hearing

Leading expert on 20th-century buildings Shane O’Toole told the An Bord Pleanála hearing that the ESB headquarters on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Street is worth protecting. File photograph: David Sleator

Leading expert on 20th-century buildings Shane O’Toole told the An Bord Pleanála hearing that the ESB headquarters on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Street is worth protecting. File photograph: David Sleator

 

The ESB headquarters on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Street, earmarked for demolition, is a “unique and crucial component” of modern architectural character in the Georgian core, an An Bord Pleanála hearing has heard.

Shane O’Toole, an architect and leading expert on 20th-century buildings, castigated a decision by Dublin City Council planners to sanction its replacement as part of a wider redevelopment, now under appeal.

“Block A, as it approaches its half-centenary, has, following a controversial beginning, become a unique and crucial component of the existing architectural and civic-design character of Lower Fitzwilliam Street and, by implication, the wider Georgian core,” Mr O’Toole, a fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) told day one of oral hearings on Wednesday.

“[It] is therefore deserving of protection, having acquired its own heritage value.”

The 1960s headquarters designed by architects Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney is just one aspect of a €150 million development plan proposed by the ESB, taking in almost an entire city block.

Five parties have appealed the decision, including the ESB itself against conditions imposed by the council reducing the height of the proposed new buildings.

Mr O’Toole said while controversial in origin, the headquarters was now a treasured addition to the capital’s architectural heritage, one the city was reluctant to afford protection.

“The verdict is unanimous in the view of 100 per cent of authors of Dublin architectural histories and guidebooks,” he said.

With regard to plans to tear it down he added: “Plainly, the applicants are wrong and are on the wrong side of history and its judgment.

“Given the ESB does not intend to occupy the entirety of the proposed new development – and therefore Block A could conceivably be restored, refurbished and let in its entirety to another user,” the application should be refused.

The hearing, which is scheduled to last three days, is fielding responses to various objections and concerns including the development’s potential impact on the Dublin skyline.

Less convinced

Despite Mr O’Toole’s reservations, however, expert witnesses appearing on behalf of the ESB were less convinced by the merits of the ESB’s headquarters and raised its contentious history.

Architect David Slattery, also a fellow of the RIAI specialising in conservation and historical buildings, said the location of the “brutalist” style building has been accepted to be “highly inappropriate”, even retrospectively by its designers.

“Block A does not make for harmony within its setting. There is no other building constructed in Dublin in the 20th century which received such negative criticism for its failure to address its setting,” he said.

He told the hearing Mr Gibney had admitted to agonising for years over the “moral issues” of “what they did in Fitzwilliam Street” and admitted he would not have done so again given the opportunity.

He said the building “fails to address its unique location in a mannerly and sensitive fashion” and on that basis had failed in architectural terms.

“As Block A now stands it remains for most observers as an inappropriate and out-of-place building,” he said.

“Whilst the quality and detail of its 1960s Brutalist style is evident, its design and architectural qualities are insufficient to overcome this essential failing to address or empathise with its location.”

Dave Kirkwood, specialising in landscape architecture and urban design, was also of the view the building would be better replaced.

“[The headquarters] currently sits in uncomfortable contrast with most of its neighbours,” he said.

“I am of the opinion that it is an anachronism of the modern era, thrust into the south Georgian core without being integrated by design into the established and prevalent historical context.”